The Emotional, Aesthetic and Academic Dilemma of the Music Critic

Some of you who possibly read what I write, may wonder why my music criticism has not covered the remarkable Warsaw Easter Beethoven Festival and other recent notable concerts in Poland and elsewhere. 

I am not a Professor of Music at an eminent international institution or a graduate musicologist but am an author and college lecturer in cultural education who seriously studied music, the piano and harpsichord in London for many years. 

However, I must admit to having almost completely lost confidence in the usefulness of my perhaps all too personal assessment of music recitals and concerts. Many concerts, competitions and recitals can be watched online today and listeners can come to their own conclusions concerning interpretation and performance. After all it is the composer, the composition and its historical and cultural context that should predominate in one's considerations and conclusions. In the modern world, beset as it presently is with the horrors of survival on every front, music reviewing is scarcely an intellectual activity of major importance.

I try to offer constructive criticism in the kindest and most compassionate way possible. After all I feel such writing is an important historical record of an ephemeral art. Having seriously studied the piano and harpsichord, I know all too well how fiendishly difficult to master are these instruments and the music written for them. However, reviewing does seem rather a pointless and time consuming, even possibly rather a vain activity.

Of course a great musician and interpreter can 'open the doors of perception' for us more limited beings but .... surely the music itself is the height one should aspire to illuminate in any critical assessment. The filters of experience make this rather challenging for the creation of a so-called 'objective' judgements by both listener and performer. 

We all have our own Chopin which would defend to the death ....

Eduard Hanslick, German-Bohemian music critic, 1825-1904

Eduard Hanslick was one of the most influential music critics and musical thinkers of the 19th century. Hanslick is perhaps best known for his 1854 monograph on aesthetics, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen: Ein Beitrag zur Revision der Ästhetik der Tonkunst. This contentious yet popular book saw ten editions published throughout the author’s lifetime. 

Espousing both a negative thesis (surprisingly that the purpose of music is not to express emotion - quite the opposite of Chopin's opinion) and a positive thesis (that the beauty of music is to be found in its 'tonally moving forms,' or 'sounding mobile forms'—'tönend bewegte Formen'), Hanslick laid the groundwork for an aesthetics of music as the objective basis for the practice of criticism. His aesthetic writings helped to define the fields of musicology and music analysis.

He documented the cultural context in which music was composed, performed, and received in the second half of the 19th century. For many years, studies on Hanslick have been positioned around a number of binary oppositions: form/content, absolute/program music, formalism/expression, formalist criticism/hermeneutic criticism. [courtesy of Oxford Bibliographies]

Image of the old Vienna university building, at which Hanslick gave his first lectures in musical history and aesthetics, c. 1850. © ÖNB Wien

In the highly entertaining and humanly inspiring The Paderewski Memoirs (London 1939), the great pianist writes in the early 1880s that as well as teaching at the Conservatory in Warsaw he was fiendishly broadening his general education which he felt was inadequate (in Mathematics, Literature, History) with four teachers a day!  

A newspaper editor offered  him the opportunity to write music criticism. He wrote: 'But at that time I was not ready for making criticism for the simple reason that I had no bitterness in myself. I do not know if critics must have bitterness, but generally they have. I must confess I always feel that.' (p.91) 

I am rarely bitter but still fondly hope to retain acute musical judgment. I am with the great English essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) when he writes in the magnificent essay On Criticism in Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1822).

I would rather be a man of disinterested taste and liberal feeling, to see and acknowledge truth and beauty wherever I found it, than a man of greater and more original genius, to hate, envy, and deny all excellence but my own [...] A genuine criticism should, as I take it, reflect the colours, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work. 

If you have time, I suggest you read the perceptive article below by Dr. Alan Walker, Emeritus Professor of Music, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of An Anatomy of Musical Criticism, also a remarkable four volume book on Franz Liszt and a recent outstanding book concerning the life and work of Fryderyk Chopin.  I respect his opinions a great deal. 

The article was published in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1998. It goes a long and thought-provoking way to furthering the debate on the fraught subject of music criticism.

I suggest you choose 'Print' for this text and tick all boxes as it will enable proper reading and  dispose of all the frightful advertisements that presently besiege the text. There is no need to actually print the text, just read it without the annoying commercial distractions

For many of the above reasons I may limit reviewing music in such detail for the present


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